The latest Eurostat food stats report published on Thursday reveals that ahead of any strategic changes in Farm to Fork, the EU livestock population is already in decline.

The number of cattle are down from 77.5m head in 2012 to a projected 75.6m in 2021, while sheep numbers are down 1.3m between 2012 and 2019.

Sheep numbers had also fallen sharply in the period between 2004 and 2009, which means that sheepmeat production in the EU27 is now just 60% of what it was in the year 2000.

EU dairy farms produced 160.1m tonnes of milk in 2020, a 2% increase on the previous year.

The striking feature of dairy production is the huge spread in output per cow across EU member states.

While the EU average yield per cow annually is 7,500kg, this covers a huge range in output from Estonia at the top with 10,063kg per cow to Romania at the bottom with annual average yield per cow of just 3,654kg per cow and everyone else somewhere in between.

Climate impact

The Irish Farmers Journal print edition this week examined the level of agri-food demand from the livestock sector in 2030 as forecast by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN).

The FAO projects that all categories of meat and dairy will see increases by varying amounts in consumer demand for produce by 2030.

Using dairy as an example, the FAO projects that the world will consume 94.5m more tonnes of dairy products in 2030 that it did in 2021 and that production will expand to meet that demand.

What is also striking is the difference across the world in the number of cows in different areas required to deliver the 2030 output.

Efficiency

In a picture similar to the EU, the spread in output per cow between developed dairy producing countries like North America, New Zealand, Ireland and other developed EU countries, compared with output in developing countries, is striking.

In the high-output countries in 2021, 75.6m cows produced 462.5m tonnes whereas in the less-developed countries, 652m cows delivered just 462.5m tonnes of dairy output, almost eight times less output per cow.

From a climate perspective, the low-output cows will only have marginally fewer emissions than high-output cows.

This is why it makes no sense to curtail production in countries such as Ireland and New Zealand among others where the emissions per litre of milk produced are lowest in favour of high emissions per litre of output elsewhere in the world.

Comment

There is a sense among farmers that a standoff has developed around the need to tackle climate change taking precedence over the need to sustain food production in the EU.

The reality is that it isn’t an either-or choice, it has to be both. Climate change is real and we cannot pretend it doesn’t exist or farmers should be given a free pass on that battle.

Similarly, EU policy has to recognise that outsourcing production to less-efficient emissions areas of the world is actually counterproductive from a global climate perspective, even if it allows an EU box to be ticked.

Climate change and food production are too important to be treated in this way.